The Bold Knight, The Apples of Youth and the Waters of Life
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Russian fairy tales seem to have a lot in common, not the least of which are the endings to the happy ones. “At long last, the two were married and a sumptuous feast was held. I was there (says the narrator). . I ate and drank. The cabbage was toothsome and heady liquors poured like waters from a spring. Meade ran down into my mustache but did not spill into my beard. The wedding was magnificent! The couple prospered happily forever after, living to a ripe old age.”
There is another commonality, one I can only call the Bumbling Knight. Rather than the Valiant Hero heading off to battle with his wits and weapons primed, this poor fellow often meets a dire fate due to sheer ineptitude or selfishness; if he does Win the Day (and the princess) it’s often through some surreptitious means or else by accident. The princess herself is often instrumental in her own salvation, unlike the sort of princess we in the west are more familiar with, who usually waits (or sleeps) until the Valiant Knight comes charging in.
They are also long… the story is below. (shortened/paraphrased/ from “Russian Fairy Tales” by Alexander Alexeieff (Random House, first printing 1945).
Paliusha is from Elven Princess Stock by MzzD at Deviant Art.com.
I created the room, beginning with a stock photo from WolfC Stock (also at DeviantArt), then adding a wall, altering its shape. The table is from stock but the items have been added individually, from a variety of sources such as catalogues. The individual brushes have been skewed and/or distorted for perspective.
In this story, an elderly king has gone blind. He learns of the Tenth Kingdom where a magic garden grows and there can be found enchanted apples capable of turning back the clock for anyone who eats them, as well as a witch’s pool, whose waters can restore his sight.
He had three sons, so sent the oldest out to find the place. He rode for many miles, finally coming to a pillar in the road where signs pointed off in three directions. If he followed the first his horse would be fine but he himself would starve to death. If he followed the second, both would surely die a horrible death. If he followed the third, his horse would go hungry but he would dine on sumptuous viands and be treated like a czar.
Off he went in the third direction. Sure enough, after several days he came to a mansion near a woods. Not bothering to doff his cap or even bow his head as custom would devcree, he galloped straight into the yard where a young widow welcomed him with open arms. “Ah! Dear guest!” she said. “Come in!”
She ushered him inside. She sat him at her table, where she served him dish after dish, all prepared deliciously, with drink after drink. Finally sated, he lay down to nap but she forbade it. “It is not fitting for a gallant man like you to sleep alone,” she said. “Go into the chamber there and lie with my beautiful daughter, Dunia.”
Very pleased with this proposal, off he went. And sure enough, there in an ornate bedroom was a beautiful woman in a white lace grown. “Come in, handsome knight,” she said, enticingly. “Do come closer. We will both be warmer.” But when moved closer, down he tumbled through a trap in the bed! He landed in a dark cellar and could not climb out. There he remained, trapped and cold and hungry, forced to grind raw rye day and night.
Months went by. When he did not return, the king gave up and sent his second son to find the magic garden in his stead. The second son, also riding to the pillar, made the same choice his brother had. Shortly, they were both imprisoned in the pit.
When neither one returned, the king’s youngest son decided he would take a turn, as well. The king forbade it. “Absolutely not! First off, you are but a boy. Your older brothers perished on this quest and you will perish even sooner, being young and not too smart.” For the boy was known in the village as something of a simpleton, one who fought imaginary enemies and swept his blade at falling leaves.
Nevertheless, off he went despite objections from his father. In time, he also reached the widow’s house, where he dismounted from his horse, removed his cap, knocked at the door and bowed. He asked if he could spend the night. The widow said, "Of course, " and welcomed him most warmly to the house. Later, having eaten to his full, he asked if he could take a nap. And as before, she said, “No, it isn’t fitting for a gallant man like you to sleep alone. Go and lie with Dunia, my daughter.”
But he said, “No, that would not be right. Not until I make the proper preparations. Won’t you heat the bath for me? You can have your lovely daughter lead me to the bath-house once the water’s hot.”
It was done. But Dunia was as wicked as her mother, so she made him go in first and then she locked the door. The water was so hot, he might have died in there but he heaved at the door and heaved again, until it finally opened – after which he dragged her in the room! He shoved her in the corner. Then he drew his blade. “Tell me evil woman, what you did to my two brothers! I know they came here and I know that neither one was ever seen again. Speak, or I will slice your pretty head off with a single blow!”
“Put that blade away and let me go! Your brothers are alive!” she said.
“If you want to live until the morning, bring them here!”
She did. “You should hang your heads in shame!” he told them. “Now, go home. Our father has been grieving all this time!” But neither cared to face the king, having failed in their mission. Instead, they ran into the forest where they wandered aimlessly for quite some time.
The younger brother left the widow’s place as well, and rode until he reached a farmhouse further off. A pretty farm-girl waited there, weaving on the porch. “What are you doing, knight?” she asked. “Are you running away from an adventure, or are you trying to find one?”
“I am on a mission, " he replied. “I am going past the Ninth Land to the Tenth Kingdom, where I hope to find the apples of youth and the waters of life for my blind, aging father.”
“That is very gallant,” said the girl. “So be it. Keep on going and you’ll reach my sister’s house. She knows more than I do and will tell you how to reach the magic garden. Be warned: it will be very hard for you to reach that place or get that fruit. Our wicked aunt owns the garden and she’s not a friendly person.”
He thanked her, then away he rode. When he reached her sister’s house and told her of his mission, she told him he would have to visit yet another sister living high atop a mountain peak. “Your horse will never make it there,” she said. “Leave him here. I will give you one of mine instead, and mine can fly.”
As it happened, the third sister also had a flying horse. “Take mine and leave my sister’s here,” she said. “Hers is old tired out and mine is young and fresh. He will get you to the magic garden, but be warned: our aunt who owns that garden is a terrible witch. When you arrive, you’ll reach a high stone wall. You must clear it in a single bound! The wall is strung with bells and if he touches those however lightly, they will ring and wake that hag and woe is you, if that occurs. She will lock you up forever and you’ll never get away.”
To the fellow’s horror, as he jumped the fence the horse’s tail grazed the string of bells! They started tinkling but the witch was sound asleep. Though she did wake up, she she mistook the sound for rain and fell asleep again. Shortly, off he galloped with the magic apples and the elixir of youth.
Alas. It was not to be that simple. The old witch realized upon awakening that morning, that her fruit and water had been stolen, so she mounted up and galloped off in hot pursuit. First, she galloped to her nieces’ homes. "Oh yes, "they said. “There was a young, handsome fellow through here, not that long ago. Sorry, but he’s long gone, now and we have no idea where he’s gone.”
She almost overtook him, but by then he’d crossed the border to his father’s kingdom where she dared not tread. She shouted at him from the road. “You think you’re such a clever little thief! Well, you got away from me. But mark my words: nothing can save you from your own wicked brothers, little thief!” And having thus foretold his fate, off she went for home.
It wasn’t long before he found his brothers. The rogues were in a field, fast asleep. Having not a clue how wicked they’d become while slaving in the widow’s pit, he lay down beside the two and fell asleep as well. But upon awakening, they said, “Behold! The little fool has the witching-applies in his things!” They didn’t find the water, as he had it in a tiny flask but they promptly stole the fruit and then while he was still asleep they threw him off a nearby cliff. “Ha ha!” they gloated. “That’s the end of the little idiot. We will take these apples to our father, tell him we took them from the magic garden, and reap our over-due reward!”
For three whole days and nights, the younger brother fell – and fell – until he finally landed in the Realm of Darkness, where there is no sun and people live by firelight. Everybody there was very sad. Everyone he met was crying. There was a cause to the sorrow, he was told: their king’s only daughter, Paliusha, would be fed to the dragon in the morning! In their kingdom, they explained, a maiden was presented to the Dragon every month. That was the law of the land. If the monster missed a meal, he would go berserk and devour everyone in town. And as bad luck would have it, Paliusha’s name was drawn from the lot only yesterday.
The knight hurried off to speak to the king. “I will save your daughter from the dragon,” he announced. “But in return, you must do me a favor.” The king said, “I will grant you anything you wish! Including the hand of my daughter in marriage, if you save her from this terrible fate.”
And so it came about when the time arrived, the knight went to the lair of the dragon with the princess Paliusha. There, at the edge of the sea they were left alone. “Where is this dragon, then?” he asked; for to his relief, he saw nothing but the sea, and rocks, and birds.
“He will be along,” she told him. “We will wait. And all too soon, you’ll see him winging through the sky on terrible scaled wings, with seven horrid heads, all of which must be severed or the beast survives. You should not have come. You cannot defeat this creature, knight. All you have is one lone blade, and not a very sharp one, either. Both of us are doomed.”
“I will slay this dragon,” he replied, “if only I can stay awake until he comes. I haven’t slept in days. Should I fall asleep, you must wake me up. Use my blade. Cut me if you must or I may not wake up, as tired as I am.”
Eventually, the Dragon came and exactly as he’d feared, the prince was sound asleep when he arrived. Paliusha did her best to wake him, but couldn’t – not until a tear fell against his cheek. For by then, she was weeping in despair. “Oh!” he said. “You have burned me with something very pleasant!” Whereupon, he sprang to his feet, took his blade in hand and swung it hard. His blow found its mark and five of the dragon’s heads were severed! With a second blow, he cut away the other two. The monster perished with an agonizing howl, after which the knight gathered up its heads, hid them underneath the sea-wall , then cast the monster’s body in the surf.
This should have been the end of it but as luck would have it, or perhaps because the evil witch had cast a curse, a certain man of low moral character happened on the scene and saw the stranger kill the beast. Then he saw the knight go back to sleep. He crept up sneakily, drew his blade and cut the fellow’s head away before his victim or the princess could react! He tossed the severed head in to the sea, then the trunk. Then he seized the woman, held her fast against the wall and said, “We will tell your father I’m the one who saved you from the dragon! Agree, or I will throw your head into the sea as well!”
There was nothing to be done. Paliusha wept and wept, as they went to see the king. “What is this, then?” he inquired. “Where is the fine young man I spoke to, earlier?”
She told him she had no idea, but the other man had saved her life. Overjoyed, the king at once set out preparing for the wedding feast. In the days that followed, guests arrived from every foreign land about the earth – kings, czars, princes, knights from every country in the Realm. No longer were the people in the Realm of Darkness sad; there was great rejoicing in the kingdom after that. Only Paliusha wept. But she would go into a corner of the castle shedding silent tears, so no one knew.
On the day before her wedding, an idea came to her and she approached her father asking for a favor. “Anything you want, my daughter!” he replied. “What would you like? Gold? Precious gems? Anything for you, beloved one. Speak. No amount of money will be spared!”
She told him, all she wanted were some fish. “Many, many fish,” she said. “I would like to go aboard the boat myself and help the fishers throw the nets!”
“Fish? Did you say fish?” It was an odd request, her father thought but gave permission, as he’d promised and Paliusha went to sea that day. Enormous quantities of fish were caught. And she examined every net the men hauled up. “These are not the fish I’m looking for,” she told them, many times. So they would cast another net and haul it in, and this occurred repeatedly until at last, they dragged out someone’s head and trunk. Paliusha dug through the pocket of the fellow’s shirt, found the vial of enchanted water, sprinkled it upon him, and he came to life again, Head and body were restored. “Oh, my beloved!” she proclaimed. "I knew I could restore you once I found you, if you still had the magic elixir! Now, you must return the favor. I am to be married to a villain and a murderer, this very evening. I would rather the Dragon ate me up, than this. We must go to the king and stop the wedding. "
“I cannot simply say I’m the one who saved you,” said the knight. "He won’t believe me! I will think of something, though… "
When they reached the palace, the festivities had spilled from the banquet hall to every room and hallway in the castle. People drank and ate with great abandon, guests danced and sang and many toasts were being given, one louder than the next. The knight captured everyone’s attention when he jumped on a table and began to dance. He then announced that he could sing in many languages and tell ribald jokes in any tongue, as well. Having done these things, he garnered great applause and this in turn, attracted the attention of the king himself. Once he had his ear, he said, “King! Tell me, please, who saved your lovely daughter from the dragon?”
The king pointed to the would-be groom. ‘Why, he’s right over there."
The knight said, “I don’t believe it. I think he’s lying. Come, let us go to the wall by the sea, right now. All the guests can come along! If this fellow here can find the dragon’s heads, then I will believe he slew the beast, but otherwise I tell you, he is not the one.”
And so it came about that everybody poured from the castle and approached the sea en masse. The lying villain, having seen where all the heads were hidden underneath the wall, tried to pull one out but lacked the strength. He heaved and pulled but not a scale could he grasp to show for it. The knight said, “Step aside, you weakling!” Whereupon he pulled out seven dragon-heads. There were many exclamations from the crowd. “This weakling here, couldn’t kill a shrew in the hen-house!” said the knight. “It was I who slew the dragon. Then this liar murdered me! But I have the elixir of life, and I returned.”
“Is this true?” the king demanded of his daughter.
“Yes. It is! If I had spoken of it earlier, I’d have been be-headed too!”
In punishment, the lying man was tied to the tail of a horse and dragged away. The king said, “We will continue with the wedding, but you will marry Paliusha in this fellow’s stead!”
That was not to be however, as the knight declined. "I cannot remain here. My mission still awaits. I must get the magic water to my father, for he is old and blind, as soon as possible. There is only one thing I ask of you. Return me to the World Above. "
“I would,” the king replied, “but I do not know how. No one leaves the nether-world.”
Paluisha said, “There is a way. There is a magic spoonbill in the swamp and if we feed it, it can fly us to the realm of light in just a day.”
Although it vexed the king to lose his daughter, he said “So be it then, if this is who you truly love.” An ox was killed, the meat cut up and packaged, and the couple were seated on the spoonbill’s back. They bade farewell forever to the Realm of Darkness, then away they soared.
When they reached the Realm of Light, they were welcomed warmly by the king who looked younger than he had by many years. He was still blind however, so the knight annointed him at once with the water from his vial, after which the gained his sight. “How is this possible?” he asked. “Your brothers told me you were dead.”
“I would be, had they had their way!” he said. At this, his brothers were so terrified they bolted from the house and jumped into the river and were never seen again! The knight soon married Princess Paliusha
- and the wedding was magnificent!
(I was there! I ate and drank with them!)
One of a series of re-told stories based on Norman Guterman’s English translation of “Russian Fairy Tales” by Alexander Alexeieff (Random House, first printing 1945).
First in the series, Vasilia – A Very Different Sort of Heroine – She Who Has the Last Laugh
Second in the series, Ruslyn and Chernomer – The Eve of the Quest
Third in the series, Vasilisa the Wise
Spacibo! (Thanks for looking)